315. Apprentice in Science

fleming-schola-rs-1966For eight weeks in 1965, I was a Fleming Fellow (see yesterday’s post).

The gist of the program was that a Fellow was assigned to a research scientist as something like an apprentice. My personal research had been a hybrid of ecology and space science (see Tuesday’s post) Nothing like that was available in a medical research facility; instead, I was assigned to Dr. Gunnar Sevelius who was doing research on determining renal flow through use of radioisotopes. He had just finished editing Radioisotopes and Circulation the preceding year.

Dr. Sevelius gave me a small lab room and access to a supply of radioactive iodine, along with sensors for radioactivity and a strip chart recorder. He sat me down to talk about his work and tell me what he expected from me. He treated me as if I could figure things out for myself – which I could. I didn’t see him often after that, although I hung out with his young lab assistants.

I don’t need to give a lot of detail here. It has all been superseded.

Everything sophisticated in science was crude when it was being developed. Any kid in a high school metal shop today could reproduce one of Goddard’s original rockets — but only because Goddard taught them how. Any trained technician can slide you into a machine and look at images of the inside of your head — but only because to the work done by people like Dr. Sevelius. Everything at OMRF was cutting edge for 1965, and probably none of those machines are even stored in dusty basements any more. Science moves on, and quickly.

Computers? Video monitors? Forget it. A strip chart recorder had a moving roll of paper, a moving head with roll of typewriter ribbon and a striker that made a dash on the paper every time the sensor detected radioactivity. An image of a pair of kidneys looked something like this:


You can see a strip chart recorder at the top of this post. That’s me in 1965, with a haircut that was already going out of fashion.

I learned a lot that summer, not least that I would never again spend eight weeks in a windowless room doing repetitive research. I love the results of science, but the doing of it can be damned boring. I also got to test myself against other smart kids, and be satisfied with the result. Every other Fleming fellow had done more sophisticated work than I had, but they were the products of sophisticated high school science programs, or the children of scientists.

There were lectures and activities for us. I met a scientist who had done research on the reaction of elephants to LSD — two years before I chose to avoid it when it became mind candy.

I learned about Michigan State, and was encouraged to apply there. I got a tour of the basement where research was being done using a sensory deprivation tank. Fifteen years later that became the basis for my second published novel.

I learned about the infamous Dr. Sexauer. From a former fellow, I got the names of two of my former incarnations, in a late night seance. Tidac and Javernan became characters in my three fantasy novels. I wrote about that incident, and it led to an odd occurrence. The OMRF was trying to find all its Fleming Fellows to prepare for the 60th anniversary of the program. I had mentioned the name of the girl who seemed to be running the ouija board. The OMRF had googled her name, found my post, and connected with me. It was good to hear from them again.

When I returned to my tiny high school that fall, I had touched the larger world and I would never turn back.


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